Big Girls


Just before I heaved their vast bulk into the Goodwill Bag, I had to try on my son's worn-once size-13 roller blades. I left the wads of newspaper in the toes so my feet would come close to filling up the space. Clinging to the cement wall of the cellar, I tottered a few steps, and suddenly . . .

The big, dank cellar was the big, dank Ladies' Room at the Sports Center Ice Rink on North Avenue, between St. Paul and Charles; it was 1950-something, and I was tottering in my skates on the wide, wet boards of the cigarette-butt-studded floor.

They weren't really my skates. They were my grown-up 15-year-old Cousin Dottie's skates, with wads of newspaper stuffing the otherwise empty toes. They had been white, sharp figure skates, but now they were gray, dull things. Some people had wooden guards to fit over the blades when they weren't skating, but not me. I minced along on the bare steel, which, come to think of it, was probably very good for developing my sense of balance. In fact, the thing that I first loved about ice skating at the Sports Center was that I could sort of do it; I wasn't nearly as klutzy on skates as I was, say, on the hockey field. But there was another thing about those Sunday ''matinees'' I quickly learned to love even more.

My cousin (with her gleaming new figure skates) occasionally deigned to speak to me at the Sports Center, which meant admitting she actually knew me, once in a while -- always in the Ladies Room, of course, never on the ice where the boys from City College and the Polytechnic Institute were.

On the long-ago day to which my son's roller blades transported me, Cousin Dottie flopped into the only available space on the long, damp, pew-like wooden benches that lined the anteroom of the john. The space was next to me, and she made it clear that she resented the proximity. I watched fascinated as she pulled a half-crushed pack of Kents out of the cuff of her big, white, perfect cheerleading sweater, stuck a cigarette in her big, red mouth, and snapped it alight with a chrome Zippo. Her big, white, perfect teeth flashed laughter at one of her grown-up girlfriends, but from between them she hissed in my direction:

''Tell my mom or your mom, I'll kill you.''

The icy smoke in the air of the Sports Center Ladies Room must have clouded my brain. I slouched deeper into the bench, crossed my heavy-footed legs, studied the filthy ceiling lights. In an imitation of Dottie's drawl, drunk on Cherry Coke and daring, I murmured:

''Actually, I think I will tell 'em. Both. UNLESS . . .''

Dottie half-gagged on a mouthful of smoke. She stared at me. She glared. She shrugged, stuck another Kent in her red, red mouth, Zippoed it, and handed it over. ''Here, brat,'' snarled she. ''Hope you choke.''

I took a deep drag, the way I saw Dottie and the other big girls do. Something blue swirled in my head and exploded, threatening to blast out of my ears and mouth. But I didn't choke. I didn't even cough. I would have held the gagging smoke in till it killed me. But it didn't.

''Thanks,'' I grasped, smiling, and flicked the lip-end with my thumbnail the way the big girls did. There was, of course, no ash yet. It was only later I understood the thumb-flick was supposed to knock off the ashes.

What I understood instantly was that I had turned into a big girl. There was something about the things I could do in the air with my smoking hand, the things I could do with my Pixie Pink-crayoned mouth.

I smoothed the pathetic little velveteen skating skirt my grandmother had sewn for me back when I was a kid and noticed with amazement how the pale bare legs that poked from beneath it suddenly were not so gawky, not so skinny, more like long and lean, the way big girls' legs were described in the language of Seventeen. The battered gray hand-me-down skates took on a patina of worldly wisdom. In two months I would turn 13.

About 40 years after that first cigarette, I smoked my last. I don't remember that last cigarette at all. I took care to fill up the gap in my mouth and my smoking hand with long brown cinnamon sticks from the health-food store. They looked a lot like the More 120s I'd been devouring at the time of the final quittage.

At first I actually carried one of my beloved little purple or chartreuse disposable lighters and ritually touched its flame to the tip of the cinnamon stick. Only in the past year or so have I grown brave enough to leave the house without carrying a few cinnamon sticks in an old silver-and-tortoise shell cigarette case which a friend of my parents gave me for a high school graduation present. How times have changed.

How I've changed. The cut-throat camaraderie of the Ladies' Room is not a suitable sport for a woman my age -- too airless, too sedentary. Yet the Ladies Room, or the powder room -- or the toilet in the unfinished part of the club basement -- is where even big girls have to hide to smoke, nowadays. I guess smoking-in-the-bathroom is why I finally quit smoking.

Not a day goes by that I don't miss it.

Miss what? a nonsmoker (which really means a never-smoker) might ask. Easy. Beyond the hands, the head and tongue gestures, the rituals of lipstick replacement and breath mints, I miss the instant, impermeable, varnished-and-lacquered adult sophistication smoking conferred on me for the duration of a single Kent ''regular'' in the Sport Center john.

I've never had anything like it since.

Clarinda Harriss Raymond teaches writing at Towson State University.

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